Tuesday, July 11, 2017

When wanderers awaken

The other night I had an extraordinary experience as I was playing calming music for residents in a nursing home. The ones I play for have dementia and early evening after dinner can be a time of confusion for them. I usually sit playing my guitar as they drift off in their chairs while the nurses tend to their nightly meds.

There is one woman who is always pacing the halls. She usually looks down and never makes eye contact with me. In the 4 years I have gone there, she has never spoken or acknowledged the music. The other night, all of this changed.

It was while I was playing, "Over the Rainbow" when this same woman who paced and never spoke began to sing along. She smiled as she sang softly and she seemed so happy. She came over by me and said, "That is so beautiful! You are really, really good!"  While I had her attention, I played some others I thought she would know. Elvis was a big hit too. I played, "Can't Help Falling In Love, " and "Love me Tender" while she hummed along. She also loved, "Moon River," and "Unchained Melody," and "Edleweiss." She stood right next to me and hummed and laughed and kept telling me how much she loved it.

I was amazed to see this woman who I only saw wander in silence come to life. The joy in her face sparked memories of happy times and brought her out of her shell. Now I am motivated to learn more songs of the same genre and era to see how she responds next time.

The photo above was taken at the VSA (therapeutic parks and recreation) concert last April. Photo credit goes to Norman Carter. I like how I look like I am laughing to myself. I do remember it was a very good concert and such happiness was in the room that day. I'm glad Norm caught me feeling that way. It's how I feel when I play the guitar! Thanks for coming by and reading.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

You're Here Not By Chance

Every Wednesday night I go down the street to sing for some nursing home residents.  I find them all sitting in the hallway after dinner. I  have my guitar strapped on as I stroll the up and down the hall singing to them all.  I've been going there now for 7 years. Over the years I have seen many residents come and go (they are all quite ill by the time they take up residence here).  Most of the staff has been there longer than me but I've also seen a lot of them come and go too.

Even so, there have been times when my presence there seemed to go unnoticed. A Wednesday would come and I'd make my rounds seemingly invisible and go back home. At times when I'd be away or missed due to being sick, no one ever remarked on my absence.

All of this changed recently, however.  For I had missed a week due to not feeling well and one of the nurses came up and said, "Where were you last week? They were all waiting for you." Hm. I had never felt that way there before, seemed no one noticed me much. But it was true.

Last night I showed up and a man was waiting by the door. As soon as I got close enough, he punched in the code to unlock the door.  I thought he was going somewhere and asked, "Where are you off to?" But he said he was waiting for to help me in and that everyone was lined up to hear me.

Sure enough, they were. All 15 or so of them were lined up outside of the nursing station waiting for the music. As soon as I started singing, one of the nurses came and started singing and dancing and conducting along with me. The residents smiled and seemed to really enjoy it.

The above picture is something one of them took out of their purses and asked me to read. You can see it is very old and tattered and wrapped in plastic for safe keeping. I was touched by her saving this and feeling so much a part of their lives there.

 I was wrong that I was not noticed. Jt may be true that some people due to illness are unable to show or acknowledge what I bring but they do notice. It's good to be reminded of that at times.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Rewrite your endings

Someone once told me, "Everyone needs a path for growth." For some it is a relationship, for others it's their work and for me it is music. I learn so much about life from my music studies and practice. Here's what happened to me this past week.

I have a classical guitar piece I learned nearly 30 years ago that I play each day as a warm up. It's not a piece I'd ever perform in a concert but it is one I want to keep in my repertoire. Recently, I developed a memory block on the ending of the piece. Though I can hear it in my head, my hands do not remember how to play it. So, I was faced with the option of giving up on the piece (I'd never perform it anyway), or getting the music out and spending time re-learning it or I could improvise a new ending!  I went with the last option and today I had so much fun with it!

For me music is not only a source of growth and self discovery, it is also a source of joy. Today I played this piece (Weiss Prelude in Em) over and over and gave it a new ending each time.  It made me laugh to do this. I have to admit, I do prefer the "real" ending that S. L. Weiss composed but making up a new ending opened up new possibilities for me. It made me see that I don't have to do what someone else wrote down, I don't have to "color in the lines" or think in their box. I am free do see this piece of music as a recipe where I can add my own spices and flavors and herbs and make it my own.   It is such a freeing and empowering feeling.

It makes a good metaphor for my life too. If I see this old piece of music like an old story from my life and one that I have told the same way over and over --am I not free to give the story a new perspective, a new ending?   I know that endings of stories generally have a resolution or some kind of impact. What if we didn't keep the same ending? What if we improvised as I did and let the music take me to a new place?

I invite you to try this in your art or writing or music or your life. See where it takes you. It may make you laugh!

The picture above is from a gazebo in a park near where I live. I like to go there and let my mind wander. In fact, that's where I am heading now. Have fun rewriting your endings! :)

Monday, May 8, 2017

What I learned from Pachelbel Canon in D

Everyone is familiar with this beautiful piece "Pachelbel Canon in D" from the baroque era. I was hired to play this piece for a wedding recently and here's what I learned from studying and practicing this piece over six months.

Firstly, I see that musical lessons run parallel to life's lessons. For instance, if you have a problem with rushing through your day, chances are good you tend to rush the tempo in a given piece. I have that problem somewhat. Not because I am trying to get through a piece quickly but because I am so eager to show the listener how beautiful the next passage is. With a piece like Pachelbel Canon though, the timing must flow slowly with clarity and precision. I worked with a metronome for months to train myself to play the piece in a very steady, precise rhythm.

I learned a lot about bringing my own colors and musical phrases into the piece too. I have to admit, coming up with my own arrangement that would honor the tradition of the piece and also have my own unique touch was pretty challenging. I liken it to having to wear a beige colored outfit --something plain which would not stand out in a crowd. That was where my Pachelbel Canon was heading for a few months. It was ok but it was not "me."  I knew that I could wear a colorful sash or scarf to bring in my own colors while respecting the required dress code. To find my own colors and voice I turned to other guitarists who are known for never playing anything in a boring or redundant way. Here is Sungha Jung playing Pachelbel Canon. 

From him I got the idea to create my own introduction before the well known opening chordal passage and then I used the melodic idea in the outro/ending of the piece. That helped shape my vision of the piece to be more "me." I then asked myself, "How would You play this piece?" I am not really known for playing baroque music and since it was for a wedding, I needed the piece to sound like what others expected it to sound like. So it was a challenge to me to put in elements of my own guitar riffs and embellishments.

Not only that, but the church was very small and the bridal procession would only last about 40 seconds. I had to somehow find a way to condense the piece that would have all the known elements in it in a short time (usually this piece takes 2-4 minutes to play through).

What aided me in my conception of the piece was that I saw these pictures of a beautiful stained glass cabin by Neile Coooper from this webpage. Then I imagined the playing of Pachelbel Canon would be like entering a stained glass castle. Each level would become more ornate and intricate as the piece of music progressed.

I have posted some of the pictures of the stained glass cabin throughout, so you get an idea. All of these ideas helped to shape my own Pachelbel Canon in D that I enjoyed playing very much. 

My musical lessons led to life lessons. To move through my day unhurried. To express myself with simplicity and clarity. To know what I want and have a vision and set out to achieve that. 
To look for the beauty in life and stay with that vision no matter what chaos is going on in the world around me. 

I'd say that's quite a lot to learn from a piece of music. What do you learn from this piece? 

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Finding the right song can open the door to connection

This week I had several good experiences in singing with my nursing home groups. It's amazing how one song can open up a door that was not there before.  For instance, there is one elderly woman at one of the nursing homes who used to yell out things when I played my guitar (instrumental).  I play my "Sundowning Serenade" to help calm the dementia residents there. Most of them relax or doze off while listening. Ms. Martha would say things like, "That's enough of that!", "How much longer do we have to listen to this crap?!" and so on. Because she is ill, I know not to take this personally. Even so, it's not pleasant to have that happen. The other night though, something cool happened.  I went through my repertoire and tried to think of a song Martha would know and like. I found Elvis Presley's song, "Can't Help Falling in Love." Well, what do you know?! As soon as I started playing it, Martha started to sing along! In the two years or so I've known her, she has never done this.  Guess what I will play for her from now on? That was a good feeling to find something she liked.

Yesterday I was over at another nursing home and at one point a man there named Johnny said he wanted to share something. Johnny is someone I have known now for about ten years. He uses a wheelchair and he is pretty severely disabled.  However, he has recently had some positive changes and healing take place. He told the group that he can now use his hands and move his feet and sit up straight and all sorts of other things he was never able to do before in his whole life. As he revealed another example to us, he would start to cry.  Everyone was so moved by his sharing with us. One of the ladies said, "Bless you." and knowing he is a man of faith, I asked him if he'd like for us to sing, "Amazing Grace" for him. We all did sing this song and there were more tears, especially during this verse:

"Through many toils and trials and snares
I have already come
Twas grace that brought me here thus far
and Grace will lead me home. "

At another place down the road where I sing, they like to sing old songs like, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," "I Saw the Light," "Do Lord." All of these people I see have such interesting stories to tell. We often talk in between songs and tell of a time we used to sing a given song.

Singing with others is so much more than singing. Music is the bridge that opens the door inside the window to their heart.  How rich I feel to know these people who inspire me and enrich my life.

Friday, April 21, 2017

A Concert to Remember

One of my favorite events of the year is the annual VSA Charlottesville/Albemarle concert. Formerly, "very special arts," VSA is part of Therapeutic Parks & Recreation department which provides arts activities for people with disabilities. This is my 9th year doing musical activities with groups in VSA.

This year I really enjoyed accompanying a group of 15 students singing, "Let it Go" from the musical Frozen. It was a lot of fun rehearsing this over the past month because they were all so excited about this song. In the concert, we were last in the line up and which was an energetic and empowering way to end our yearly concert. Doing this Disney song on solo guitar was a challenge for me.  As you know from the song, it is an orchestrated song with several instruments and it was hard to get the same dynamics on my guitar but I think it worked out well.

I also sang a song called, "Blue Wings" which is a poem written by George Eliot. She is the writer from the Victorian era who is most known for her novel, "Middlemarch." Not many know that she also wrote poetry. Last year I set 6 of her poems to music and "Blue Wings" was one of my favorites. I hope to do a recording of these and video this summer. Stay tuned!!

Everyone did so well in the concert. One of my favorite performances of the song, "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen. It was sung by my friend Jessica in her beautiful voice while Amanda interpreted in ASL (American sign language). Wow! That was powerful.

We also had hand bell choirs, African drumming with Whit, a John Denver song by Bill, a classic rock song by Chris.. it was truly a wonderful community effort. This happened a few days ago and I am still jazzed up about it.

The picture above is a screen shot taken from the TV news clip Channel 29 did about the concert. They were there through the whole concert and I was on for a few seconds. Thanks again to all who came out to support us on our special day.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Vitamins for the heart and soul

I love my work playing therapeutic music for hospital patients in ICU. The other day I had an interesting experience.  When I play for ICU patients, I mostly improvise simple melodies with simple chord progressions. If you think of the music being like a food that feeds the heart and soul, it needs to be very easy to digest for someone who is very ill.

The other day I was playing for a man who was hooked up to life support and barely conscious. I know that he could hear me because his heart rate would change anytime I tried to play in a musical key other than C.  That is something I do when I play for critically ill people, I look for their comfort zone and try to stay in that place while they lock into the slow rhythms and peaceful melodies.

I was playing parts of a piece I composed for my mother this past winter that has some major 7th chords. Stevie Wonder uses lots of major 7th chords, by the way. The song, "You Are the Sunshine of my Life" opens with a CMaj7 add 9 chord in the introduction. If you just listen to that chord, there is something kind of magical about it. It is soothing and uplifting and it sounds like love. If you had to find a chord that represented love, this one would be a good choice.

Anyway, I was improvising with these kind of chords for this patient and playing very slow, arpeggios and I was envisioning a peaceful pastoral scene in my mind's eye to bring him to. When at times I moved to change into a song in another key (of say G or D), his heart rate immediately went up. Hm. Ok, I went back to the key of C. This is a key that is found in a lot of country and pop music. It's a pretty comforting and familiar sound, one that would feel like "home." In playing for him for nearly 30 minutes, I saw how comforting it was for me to stay within a small confines and think up new melodic motifs and come back to other ones used before to help him focus.

So here's some homework for you.  As you go about your week and you are listening to music, be aware of what musical key you seem to really respond to. Just look up the song on google  with the word "chords" and you'll find the lyrics and chords. See if your favorite songs are similar and use the same chords. Do you have a favorite key? I am partial to the key of E and one of my favorite chords is F#minor.   How about you?